The best 10 songs of the mid-year
If this list reads a little random and scattershot, that's because it is. More than ever, I haven't been able to commit to one genre or one style, picking and choosing playlists based on the whims of a moment. One key '07 development is that I've been getting more excited about electronic and dance music again, after a long wane in interest. But other than that, it's some indie rock, some hip hop, a little instrumental, and a bunch of miscellania. Going along with that, it seems that sounds are coming at me from more sources than ever too, including music blogs, MySpace, magazines, Internet radio, message boards and mixtapes. Everything's expanding exponentially, which is both tremendously promising and daunting, when just staying afloat in all my options requires a daily workday's commitment. But even among all of those competing interests, here are ten terrific songs that have stuck with me from the start:
10) "Guinea Pigs" – Desmond Reed
A sweet and catchy lo-fi strummer, "Guinea Pigs" is proof that good songwriting will always trump production pyrotechnics. Reed finds the quirky heart in his fuzzy rodents, with details that feel real and endearing ("They need someone to clean their cage when they can smell it/ And someone to give them their pellets") and an enthusiasm only a villain would refuse. And is it even possible not to smile at his sunny, indefagitable refrain of "Oh yeah! Oh yeah!"? For people who can't stand too much sun, there's also an underlying vulnerability, a hint of death and helplessness and dependence intruding on the horizon. But mostly, it's just a fun take on a cute subject that's way better than most of the more complicated things I've heard this year. Oh yeah!
* MP3: "Guinea Pigs" - Desmond Reed [Visit him]
9) "Haze" – Essie Jain
Operatic and sweeping, "Haze" is the best showcase for Essie Jain's scope and she takes full advantage. From the confident trickle-in of the spindly piano to the notes Jain slowly draws out like gauze, everything here casts a spell. For the first two thirds, it's all build and mood-setting, slow, patient and evocative of the title. But Jain saves the real stun for part three, where she suddenly adds power to the soft haunt. The music revs up too, growing bolder and brassier, slightly disrupting the spell but leaving something even more memorable and sustained in its place.
* MP3: "Haze" - Essie Jain from We Made This Ourselves [Buy it]
8) "Dumb Animals" – Handsome Furs
* MP3: "Dumb Animals" - Handsome Furs from Plague Park [Buy it]
7) "The Troglodyte Wins" - Busdriver
There's no doubt if rappers were superheroes, Busdriver would be Mr. Fantastic. Their powers both traffic in elasticity and bendiness. They're both inventors and off-kilter geniuses. (And I'll have to check on this one, but I believe they were also both blasted by cosmic space radiation.) Busdriver, ne Regan Farquhar, is always a musician to keep your eye on, because he excels at stretching past the usual parameters. At his best, metrically, musically and topically, he can be a genre unto himself, refracting rap conventions like a rubber band. And "The Troglodyte Wins" definitely stacks up among his best, a giddy, lively evisceration with a hot sample and a unique flow that's nothing short of fantastic.
* MP3: "The Troglodyte Wins" - Busdriver from RoadKillOvercoat [Buy it]
6) "One Inch Badge Pin" (Christopher Robin Remix) - Muscles
As good as the single is, this remix may be even better. It's Muscles to the max, amped up on a cocktail of amphetamines and Jolt. The vocals pinball around in a funhouse of electronic madness, pure energy and fun and adrenaline. Sampled out of context, the snippets of lyrics make no sense, with repeating staccato shoutouts of "In-dep-end-ent!" and "p-p-p-p-p-panic" and "Lemonade and hammocks!" But somehow, they also make perfect sense, like free-associated Mad Libs or a Tourette-y Beat poem. The end result is a song that is endlessly exciting, skittish, overjoyed, aerobic and always moving, a workout for both the feet and ears.
* MP3: "One Inch Badge Pin" (Christopher Robin Remix) - Muscles [Visit him]
5) "Ice Cream" - Muscles
* MP3: "Ice Cream" - Muscles [Visit him]
4) "New York I Love You" – LCD Soundsystem
Truth be told, I don't really like going to the East Village much these days. It's the neighborhood where I lived before moving to California, and coming back to it after a year is kind of depressing. It hasn't changed all that much, but the changes are all I see. Most recently, it was decades-old fixture Kurowycky Meat Products shutting down, but before that, it was the grimy Alt. Coffee closing to go family-friendly and most heinously of all, Second Ave. Deli becoming a fucking Chase branch. Walking around my former blocks is as mildly depressing as going to a high school reunion, seeing old friends all settling down in the same boring, predictable, necessary ways. Complaining about gentrification and corporatization in the city is pretty much just as boring and predictable, so secondhand a response to New Yorkers we might as well be pontificating on the weather. And yet, miraculously, James Murphy makes it fresh again.
Sung in a low, defeated voice, "New York I Love You" is the sobering morning-after to the afterparty of "North American Scum." Where he formerly claimed "New York's the greatest if you can get someone to pay the rent," now the light has come up and the benefactors all fled and payment is due. Suddenly, the reality of the city doesn't seem nearly as promising, nearly as possible. "So the boring collect,/ I mean all disrespect,/ In the neighborhood bars I'd once dreamt I would drink," he moans, nailing it in ways I only wish I didn't recognize. Granted there's always been this ongoing mythos about the city that it was great ten years before you got here, that the best restaurant is the one that's long gone, that everything was perfect then and irreparable now. But it's still hard for me to hear something as laid-bare and personally true as "New York I love you, but you're bringing me down," and not think that this is my half-year boiled down and set to song.
* MP3:"New York I Love You" – LCD Soundsystem from Sound of Silver [Buy it]
3) "Rotten Hell" - Menomena
Menomena makes music that's weird but weirdly universal, that's epic and individual in one fell swoop. "Rotten Hell" in particular balances the I and we with so-great-it's-painful aplomb. It's a choir of lost souls, an atheist's hallelujah, an army of secular humanists getting gunned down and finding out they're angels. It's also ambiguous as hell, inviting interpretations even as it's warning you it's all for naught. ("Any day now the words will form a sentence/ You'll be reduced to nothingness.") But, among the spectral vocals and an oddly optimistic piano, there are a few lines that meaningfully pulse out of the confusion like a throbbing heart: "Wading through this mess together/ Hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder/ Some may stumble, some may fall behind."
* MP3: "Rotten Hell" - Menomena from Friend and Foe [Buy it]
2) "Smithereens (Stop Cryin')" – El-P
God, I really miss those Homeland Security alerts. Every so often, during the 2004 election campagin, Tom Ridge would tell us the exact color of our fears and we could plan our outfits to match the yellow or orange or—God forbid—red hues of our anxieties. Now with Ridge gone and the election over, I have no idea what color my fear looks like. For all I know, it could be magenta or cerulean by now. But on the bright side, at least I do know what my fear sounds like. It's the skitter of "Smithereens"'s frantic, unnerved beats and its chorus of disembodied zombies that groan back whatever lines they're fed. It's El-P's documentation of his hijacked innocence in a toxic-air city, and it's the braying background sounds that recall air-raid sirens and make even innocuous lines feel lethal. So I guess, even without the color-coded updates, I won't have to worry. El-P is finally back to put all of our asses on permanent orange alert.
* MP3: "Smithereens (Stop Cryin')" - El-P from I'll Sleep When You're Dead [Buy it]
1) "Fake Empire" – The National
A closing-time elegy for the defeatists and the whiskey-stung, a shaky-stepped parade route home. Nothing else sounded so hopeful, so nocturnal, so adrift, as indelibly Gotham as it is gothic. A last jukebox lullaby as we stumble out of the dim-lit refuge of bars, spilling out onto the solemn avenues, casting our wavering shadows onto the milky ghosts of streetlamp light. We know we'll be alone again the second we step through our apartment doors, back to piles of unwashed T-shirts and dying plants and empty refrigerators. And maybe we might even admit that awful truth, that we'll never amount to as much as we'd planned, while humming that lingering melody and saying at least we had a pretty good night.
* MP3: "Fake Empire" - The National from Boxer [Buy it]
* Also: The Torture Garden's Oh, Seven! (Best songs of '07 so far)